State Schools Superintendent: K-12 buildings will reopen in the fall

(RICK BANNAN/Centralia Chronicle)

RETURN TO IN-PERSON INSTRUCTION: Washington will reopen schools in the state for the 2020-2021 school year, but don’t expect things to be  business as usual…

Parents and teachers hoping for a return to in-person school have good news after Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal announced guidelines for reopening K-12 school buildings for the 2020-2021 school year.

Reykdal announced the plan for next school year in a press conference June 11, laying out some of the changes required for districts to open their doors in the fall. The changes were based on state Department of Health guidelines for reducing the potential for spreading COVID-19, the disease that originally closed buildings in March as part of a series of restrictions on public gatherings and businesses across Washington.

Those changes included a requirement for students and school staff to wear face coverings along with a focus on hygiene protocols and screening of students for disease symptoms, Reykdal explained. In some cases, the exact protocols would be designed by each district’s school boards, including the potential for using alternatives to everyday full attendance — like a split, or rotating, model that would have portions of students in buildings on alternating days or weeks, or a phased-in approach meaning prioritizing certain demographics to start face-to-face instruction before others.

Another alternative is “continuous learning 2.0,” which Reykdal said would be “a significantly more sophisticated and developed way of structuring learning at a distance” to increase learning equity, compared to the distance learning model that was implemented by districts while buildings were closed this school year.

Reykdal expressed confidence that those alternatives would not be necessary in most cases, at least if COVID-19 does not see a resurgence when school is set to open.

“We’re opening this fall, provided it is safe,” Reykdal said.
Those alternatives would still need to be explored by districts, either because the possibility that their respective counties would not be able to move far enough through the “Safe Start Washington” process to allow for outright full-attendance opening, or due to the possibility of outbreaks occurring once school is in session, warranting a change in operations to mitigate the outbreak’s effects.

Reykdal noted local school boards would have to submit their back-to-school protocols to state authorities at least two weeks before school is set to open. He explained the submission wasn’t about final approval, but was in order to have plans “on file” for review by parents or media. He said that local school districts will have autonomy in coming up with when and how they open.

In coming up with their procedures, districts would have the opportunity to employ the alternative models if a significant portion of the school population had made it known they were not in favor of fully returning to buildings, Reykdal said.

Screening practices would be decided by the district, be it done every morning or with students who show symptoms, Reykdal explained. He added that in pre-COVID days when parents would send students to school if experiencing mild symptoms, this was “not an option” for next school year.

Reykdal said square footage of buildings will be a primary issue given the need for social distancing, which he said would require districts to be “remarkably creative” with their use of space.

Reykdal said that the Department of Health didn’t have a percentage of capacity but did require 6 feet distance between students and staff, something that may change the nature of classrooms, particularly for younger grades and kindergarten.